June 1st, 2012
Just outside the French town of Vimoutiers in Western France (an hour South East of Caen) is a very rare sight. A massive World War Two era German Tiger I tank (Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. E)! This was something I certainly had never seen before and being a military history buff I went off the major roads on my way back to Paris from Normandy to go see the once mighty Tiger (earlier in my trip I had seen a King Tiger and Panther tanks in Belgium so this was the missing piece in the best tanks of the German Panzerkorps).
The Tiger I was a formidable tank in its day with heavy armour and it could strike a massive blow with its 88mm cannon – virtually no other tank could match it for firepower, but it had its weaknesses including being a thirsty beast which severely limited its range. They weighed an incredible 56.9 tonnes, but the big V-12 engine could still power it along at 38 km/h (24 mph) on open roads. This particular Tiger I (No. 231) of the 2nd Company of the SS Panzer Battalion 102 was abandoned in 1944 when it ran out of fuel trying to escape from the Falaise Pocket following the Allied invasion of Normandy. The Falaise Pocket was where the Allied troops (American, British, Canadian and Polish) were attempting to surround German troops in August 1944.
Falaise was the only feasible exit point for the Germans which they fought hard to keep open to allow their troops to escape. Despite constant land, air and artillery attacks a large proportion of the Germans managed to retreat from the pocket (of approximately 100,000 men inside the pocket, up to 50,000 escaped) albeit with much of their equipment and vehicles including tanks destroyed or disabled (it is estimated that 500 tanks and assault guns were lost). The battle for Normandy was effectively over by the end of August 1944.
After this particular Tiger I ran out of fuel on a major road near Vimoutiers, the German crew set 2 demolition charges to disable the tank (one in the engine, the other in the turret). The charges heavily damaged the interior of the tank and rendered the turret inoperable. It was later pushed off the road and down a bank amongst trees by US troops. The tank was claimed by a local scrap merchant and basically sat there for 30 years until his death, when it was sold to be chopped up for scrap metal. The local Mayor was notified and stopped this destruction.
The town of Vimoutiers then purchased the tank and after relocating it and doing some restoration turned it into a War Memorial in 1975. Although the interior and gear box had been stripped clean years ago, the exterior was mainly intact (the most noticeable parts missing are the rear exhausts and the caterpillar track covers). Apart from wear and tear the only major indication of damage to the tank is the large “crack” that has been repaired in the turret. This was from the second scrap merchants who had started to cut the turret in half before the Mayor stepped in!
No. 231 is 1 of only 6 Tiger I tanks that exist today. 2 are in France, 1 is in the UK that is fully restored and in running condition, 2 are in Russia and 1 is on display in the USA.
Whilst travelling around Western Europe that summer I came across a number of once mighty German tanks smashed in the aftermath of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 including Panther and King Tiger tanks. The Panzer Korps once reigned supreme during the Blitzkrieg but without air superiority and with the sheer overpowering force and numerical superiority of the Allied ground forces there was nothing but destruction and surrender that awaited them! That was to be their fate…..